Shahrukh Khan — one of the most feared and successful finishers in domestic cricket — opens up about honing his mindset, training for the role and making peace with not having the opportunity to make the big runs top-order batters score
M. Shahrukh Khan became a household name last year after his sensational last-ball six against Karnataka in the final of the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy helped Tamil Nadu clinch its second successive title.
From a teen prodigy who scored a lot of runs at the top of the order, the 26-year-old has had to adapt to become the finisher that he is today. Expected to attract big money in the upcoming IPL auction, he is also someone the national selectors are keeping an eye on.
In this chat with The Hindu, Shahrukh talks about his early years, why and how he learnt to play down the order, his IPL experience and more. Excerpts:
How would you sum up the last two years, which have seen your career scale new heights quickly?
Yes, it has been good but most of the work was done in the past five to six years after I finished my under-19 and went to the big boys’ league. The practice that I went through that time is what is paying off now. It has been good in domestic cricket and the IPL also went well, and I think things are shaping well now.
You made your Tamil Nadu limited-overs debut in 2014. But it took nearly five years to find a regular spot in the side. Can you talk us through your journey during these years?
Initially, when I came into the team, I had finished my under-19. I made 700 runs but still missed out on the U19 World Cup. I was with the TN one-day team that year and played five games. But after that, it took me a long time to cement the place. There were big guns in the side like M. Vijay, Dinesh Karthik, S. Anirudha, which meant I had to sit out. I was not finding a place in the team. The other people were performing well. I used to come back from under-23, have no place and go back again. So finally when I got my place back, the role was assigned to be a finisher and I have been able to do well.
Were those years of not getting a chance tough?
It wasn’t that tough. I used to keep playing under-23 and I just didn’t get a chance with Vijay Hazare or Ranji because others were doing well. I just wanted to get runs wherever I played and I was doing well in under-23. I had a very calm mindset and was ready to perform. I wasn’t disappointed. I knew that I had to get a lot of runs in under-23 to get into the team and that was my main focus. When I finally got my chance, everything came together at the right time. I played under-23 for four years, got a lot of runs and that made me what I am today. Those years taught me a lot of things. Had I not played under-23, I don’t think I would have had the mindset I have today and it toughened me mentally.
You were a top-order batter playing at three or four since your junior days. How did you transition to playing down the order?
Three years ago , in the TN one-day team only one slot was open and that was at number six and because there was no place in the top order, I had to do it. It was the first time I was playing at number six. It was [TN assistant coach] R. Prasanna who suggested that. Dinesh Karthik was the captain that year and they saw potential in me that I could fit in at number six. Both spoke to me about what my role was going to be and Prasanna was the one who identified that I could do that.
Did you have to work hard at it to adapt to a different position?
Oh yeah, it comes only after working a lot. It doesn’t come naturally. The basics of batting are natural but you need to practise a lot to understand the pace of the innings when you go in and how you need to do it. So yeah, it came after a lot of practice. Every day when I practised, I was given situations. Say the team is 150 for five, how will you take the team to 280? Whenever I trained in the nets, I was given situations and had to work at them. I had no time to think about how the ball was hitting my bat because the most important thing was how to get the team to that score.
The transition from a top-order batter to finisher means you are not going to score a lot of runs. How do you prepare yourself mentally that you may not have a lot of runs at the end of the season?
Yes, as a top-order player, you are used to playing long innings but as soon as you come down the order, you have a lesser number of balls. I accepted very soon that this is what my role is and this is what it is going to be. I need to contribute with whatever deliveries I have. Putting the team ahead of me takes the pressure off. You just see the team score and nothing else and do whatever is needed. I realised I need to play impactful innings and value even those 25 or 30 runs.
You were known as someone who played with elegance and timing but now you have also added power-hitting to your arsenal. How did you develop that?
In 2019, the team needed me to play the big-hitting role. I was going in the 45th over, so I had to start hitting from the first ball. So the power-hitting session happened after the nets every day. You need to have new shots in your armoury. However deep you take the game, in the last few overs, it is just slam-bang. That was what I was practising. Because I am big and built, I had that extra edge where I could clear the ropes.
In terms of technique, I had the base of a top-order batsman… like batting for a long time. But you have to explore your batting when playing in the death overs. There were just minor adjustments. I never used to stand deep in the crease because I used to play up the order and I started using the depth of the crease or opening up my left leg a little more to get a wider range.
How did you get physically ready?
I have been training with Azariah Prabhakar for the last 15 years. I have been in a routine where we follow a fitness regimen of training, gymming at the right time and gymming just enough for cricket and not overdoing it. I did a lot of running which helped me a lot in terms of getting tough mentally. That was a process that was happening for a long time and when I was given this role, everything just came together that I was ready physically for this. I would credit him for that.
Where have you improved in the last couple of years?
In 2019, I was finishing off games for the team, I was doing well. Whenever the team needed me, I was standing up and finishing off the innings. Every year I sort of developed new things in my batting, which helped me get runs much quicker. There wasn’t too much preparation to get runs quicker but it was just that shift in the mindset and how you see things when you go in to bat. It is because of the clarity that the coaches have given me. ‘This is what your role is, this is what you have to do.’ I have to go and find a solution for that, find what works for me and the team that particular day.
Did you view the 2021 domestic season as a make-or-break one for you, especially with IPL auctions after Syed Mushtaq Ali 2020-21?
I did. The year after I started doing the finisher role, I worked a lot more to do things even better. During the pandemic, I was training in my house, on the street. I did a lot of running there and had some old weights. I was trying to stay in touch with my fitness and be ready.
That season, in the quarterfinals against Himachal, the team was down and out [66 for five in the 13th over, chasing a target of 136]. I needed to step up and fortunately, I did that day. I got a situation where I could show what I am capable of doing. That situation was there in front of me. I didn’t think too much about the situation and just kept going from the first ball, trusting myself that if I stay till the end, I can take the team home. Eventually, we won with an over [sic: 2.1 overs] to spare. I think that innings [an unbeaten 19-ball 40 with five fours and two sixes] helped me get into the IPL.
How was the step up from domestic cricket to IPL? You were bought for a very good price.
Getting into the IPL for the first time was great. Yes, the price was a very good one, but for me, the most important thing was to get into the IPL and get a chance to play. I wanted to feel that I belonged there after scoring runs.
In terms of the step-up, you get bowlers who bowl 140kmph consistently. The speed is a bit more, the bounce is a bit more. Initially, I was finding it difficult in the first five-six days in the nets. Slowly I got used to it. It took close to twenty days but after that I got confident. [Punjab Kings batting coach] Wasim Jaffer was there and he helped me a lot and said, “Just think about IPL as the same as playing for TN and do what you have been doing.” He was a big pillar of strength there.
Recently during the Vijay Hazare tournament, chairman of selectors Chetan Sharma spoke to you and later said you are someone they are keeping an eye on. How are you dealing with that? There are not a lot of batters who can hit long distances from the first ball like you have been doing these last few years.
He just said things are going well and I am finishing well. They like the way I am batting and want me to just keep continuing to finish games. It is there in the back of my mind that I need to practise in a way that I need to be able to tackle that level of bowling. Whatever practice is going on now is to tackle that and what is needed at that level and be prepared to be as good as possible. But at the same time, I am not thinking too much. I know that thing is in my head and yeah, but I need to focus on the present. I don’t want to spoil today’s practice session by thinking too much into the future.